A new retrospective brings Barbie Army back to the front lines - Chicago Reader
I discovered Barbie Army’s music on YouTube in 2017, when their song “Don’t Wait” appeared in my recommendations.... I couldn’t stop singing “Don’t Wait.” I couldn’t get its lyrics out of my head .
By Jen Larson – March 30, 2022
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A new retrospective brings Barbie Army back to the front lines
The Chicago garage rockers broke up in obscurity more than 30 years ago, but a German label is giving them a second chance at the audience they deserve.
by Jen B. LarsonMarch 30, 2022
If it weren’t for YouTube algorithms, the music of Barbie Army might’ve vanished like dust in the wind. Like so many underground garage-rock bands, this Chicago group played live constantly but didn’t pay as much attention to releasing recordings—during their lifetime, from 1986 till 1991, they put out one self-titled, self-released seven-inch and a few DIY cassettes that they dubbed by hand to sell at gigs and by mail. Barbie Army could attract crowds, but they had a hard time building momentum. When they broke up, they were still undetected by the masses, even in Chicago.
Thankfully, the Internet has a way of remembering things for us. And because someone uploaded some of Barbie Army’s music to YouTube in the mid-2010s, Berlin-based label No Plan is releasing a collection of recordings made more than 30 years ago by a group nearly 5,000 miles away. Barbies Don’t Bleed: Retrospective 1986-1990, which the label says contains the band’s “whole discography,” comes out on April 1. In May, members of Barbie Army will reunite to celebrate the new record with a show at one of their old haunts, Phyllis’ Musical Inn.
Barbie Army recorded several of the songs on Barbies Don’t Bleed at Jay’s Garage, run by musician and engineer Jay O’Rourke—the track “Ivan” appears on the 1988 compilation It Came From Jay’s Garage. They worked with engineer Lee Popa (now known as Lee Pope) for several sessions, including the 1990 date at Shadow Productions that produced the A side of their lone seven-inch. (They recorded the B side at Wicker Park studio Idful Music, then just a year or so old and not yet famous.) The two sides of that record showcase different members, though, which was a problem Barbie Army consistently faced: practically every time they put out new music, they had a different lineup.
This could make it difficult to sell and promote their releases. Maybe new members weren’t motivated to push a tape on which they hadn’t played; maybe the band had misgivings about selling fans a recording by a lineup that might not sound enough like the show they’d just heard. These factors also made them reluctant to send their work to critics, and Barbie Army didn’t pick up steam in the music press. They wrote fun material with impressive songcraft, and their musicianship was top-notch. But they were never more than a niche band.
In the early 90s, the likes of Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, and Veruca Salt were just beginning to distinguish Chicago indie rock from radio drivel. They kicked off a brief period when independent-minded rock artists could reasonably aspire to earn a living in the city, or even get famous—but by then, Barbie Army had called it quits.
I discovered Barbie Army’s music on YouTube in 2017, when their song “Don’t Wait” appeared in my recommendations. It was hosted by the account of someone who went by ThirstyCraig, who I’ve since learned is a sort of anonymous Internet hero to lots of 80s Chicago punks. At that point, Barbie Army had no Web presence at all—they were a mystery to me.
ThirstyCraig had paired the audio with a black-and-white photo of three girls piled on top of one another, sassily rolling their tongues. At the time, I was grieving the breakup of my own garage-rock band Swimsuit Addition. I related to the Barbies, not just because they were a troupe of troublemaking women from Chicago, but also because we had similar styles—a penchant for poppy songs that flirted with chaos—and I felt connected to their lyrics.
I couldn’t stop singing “Don’t Wait.” I couldn’t get its lyrics out of my head: “If you happen into Standard Liquors, won’t you buy me a bottle of wine? / That dream we shared is fading in the streetlight / And if you happen to think of me, won’t you please do it carefully? / You can’t throw something away that you never had, but you had me.”
Much later, when I’d started researching this story, I talked via Zoom with seven former members of Barbie Army and learned that “Don’t Wait” had been written by a friend of the band, a pig farmer and lawyer named Paul Anderson. Paul’s version was much slower and twangier. The Barbies changed a few lyrics (they added the line “You’ve been hanging ’round some pretty places with that girl from Highland Park,” for example), but they honored his vision in their rendition.
The Barbies describe Paul as a songwriting prodigy—they say he constructed great tunes with heartbreaking lyrics. That the band recognized the brilliance of “Don’t Wait” is important; part of what made Barbie Army so clever was their ear for good material. They covered a lot of songs by well-known artists too, including Billy Bragg’s “New England,” the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.”
Over the past eight years, ThirstyCraig has uploaded several of Barbie Army’s songs. Other than tracking down copies of their cassettes or their seven-inch, which have become impossible to find, listening to his channel was the only way to hear the band’s music. As far as I know, it still is the only way for most of their material—though that will change with the No Plan reissue.
“Craig’s been the keeper of a lot of the Chicago punk-rock scene,” says Barbie Army drummer Tina Matlock. “He squirreled it away for a while and started trickling it out into the universe of the Internet. Luckily for all of us, he did that.”
No Plan label owner Dario “Adam” Adamic also heard Barbie Army for the first time through ThirstyCraig’s channel, but at that point he’d already heard of them. In fact, he’d had their name in the back of his mind for 30 years: in 1990, a year after he moved from Croatia to Italy, he’d discovered a back issue of Maximum Rocknroll that included a 1987 interview with the band. He made a mental note of their name, but he didn’t encounter it again till he was browsing YouTube at the beginning of the pandemic. “I heard ‘Don’t Wait’ and I was blown away!” he says. “I couldn’t believe such a gem was hidden from me for all these years. So I dug more and more and I thought, ‘Wow! What a great band!’”
Adam wanted to do Barbie Army justice and bring their music out on vinyl. He found the band’s cofounders on Facebook and reached out, and luckily one of them responded. “If it wasn’t for [ThirstyCraig’s] channel, who knows if all this would be happening now,” he says. “Their music was just too good to only be a YouTube domain. These are all wonderful compositions, but they’re recorded in a very straightforward way. There’s no pretense, no high-end production, and that only makes it more relatable.”
Barbies Don’t Bleed is a retrospective of 19 Barbie Army songs, all originals, accompanied by an eight-page booklet. They wouldn’t all fit on an LP, so the release comes packaged with a bonus seven-inch.
In the early 80s, the two founding members of Barbie Army were still at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, where they’d become friends. Jean Lyons (now Lotus) and Mary Dean both had fathers working as professors at Colorado State University—Dan Lyons was in philosophy, and Mary’s dad, James Brinks, was in genetics and veterinary science. In 1982, they arrived together at the University of Chicago, where they’d declare as English majors.
At the U. of C., they joined a cover band called the Sugar Pops, playing bubblegum tunes such as the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” and the Swingin’ Medallions’ “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).”
“Mary and I have a long history of singing in the subway too,” Jean says.
After two years, Jean dropped out of school and moved to London with her guitar for six months (she’d lived in Canterbury for a stint during high school). She had a work permit for U.S. college students through BUNAC, and when it ran out, she moved back to Chicago and worked as a bike messenger. She’d eventually return to the U. of C. (and graduate in 1988), but before she did, she got involved in the local music scene. In 1985, she started playing in the band Fudgetunnel with her friends Starbuck Avon (then Judy Johnson) and Russ Forster.
Ron Richter, a future friend of Barbie Army, played in Sponge (not to be confused with the 90s Detroit band), who later joined forces with Fudgetunnel to form Spongetunnel. He remembers meeting Jean when his band was booked at the University of Chicago’s Festival of the Arts. “Two strolling minstrels with acoustic guitars approached us—Jean Lyons and Russ Forster,” he says. “We hit it off immediately.”
Jean and Mary, both of whom sang and played guitar, started Barbie Army in 1986 with Starbuck on bass. At the time Jean also edited a poetry magazine at the U. of C. called Vice Versa.
One night, the magazine threw a party, and a contributor to Vice Versa named Lorri Jackson dragged her friend Tina Matlock along. (Lorri was already locally famous, and in 1990 she would publish the chapbook My Mouth Is a Hole in My Face shortly before her death from a heroin overdose.) The three Barbie Army bandmates, who’d heard Tina was a good drummer, saw their chance and pounced.
“[They] cornered me on the back steps and were like, ‘You’re gonna play in our band!’” Tina says. “I was 16 at the time. I was running in older-kid circles.”
Tina’s first influence had been a heavy metal band in her neighborhood. She began playing drums when she was 11, learning from another local metal drummer, who charged $5 per hour. Eventually, she convinced her mom that she needed a kit of her own. “She found a way,” Tina says. “We were living in a basement apartment, and I set it up in the middle of the living room.”
As a teenager, Tina got kicked out of Notre Dame High School for Girls in Chicago. Soon after transferring to Schurz, a public school, she dropped out entirely and ran away from home. “I wandered the streets,” she says. She lived in flophouses all over the city, crashed rent-free above the bar and venue Batteries Not Included, and made friends with college-age kids. If she knew someone had a drum kit, she’d knock on their door and ask if she could play it. “I was a homeless punk-rock kid,” she says. “I felt like the mascot, because I was a kid and there was some sort of novelty to that.”
In a way, Tina became Barbie Army’s mascot too. “I was taking a photography class, so I have a million black-and-white photos of Tina,” Mary says. “And she was so photogenic, she was on practically every poster we made.”
Barbie Army played poignant garage-rock ditties built from simple chord progressions and piled high with fuzzed-out guitar, hooky vocal harmonies, poppin’ bass lines, and righteous guitar solos. They lit Barbie doll heads on fire onstage. They opposed the tampon tax, calling themselves “tampon tax abolitionists.” They wore crowns of tampons and dangly tampon earrings and hung tampons from their instruments.
Once, before Jean and Mary formed Barbie Army, they attended the U. of C.’s notorious Lascivious Costume Ball wearing dresses made of tampon “chain mail,” while Mary’s boyfriend wore a tampon box as a hat. Another time, a guy came up to Jean because he thought she had a rabbit’s foot. “No, it’s a tampon,” she replied, and he instantly recoiled. “It was a man repeller,” she says.
The band had more going for them than activism and stunts, of course. “Jean’s songwriting in Fudgetunnel carried into the Barbie Army sound,” says Ron Richter. “Mary and Tina were also contributing songs.”
The members all had their own influences and styles, but they came together via their pop sensibilities. “We were always trying to write songs that were catchy,” Jean says. “I was always really into the Beatles and very influenced by Billy Bragg.”
“I grew up on a farm,” Mary says. “I had Melanie records. I liked Karen Carpenter and of course knew Helen Reddy songs. I was more like a country singer. When I was singing, writers would always say, ‘Tammy Wynette fronting the Runaways.’”
Tina often wore AC/DC and Iron Maiden T-shirts in band photos—she considered herself a metal kid until she listened to college radio and discovered punk rock. “It totally blew my baby brain into pieces,” she says.
In 1986 and 1987, Barbie Army were mainstays at north-side establishments such as Phyllis’ Musical Inn, Weeds, and Batteries Not Included. On the south side, they regularly played at the Mexican Patriotic Club. They did small tours of the midwest—Wisconsin and Indiana—and they took two short southern tours with their friends in Spongetunnel and Paul Anderson’s Gram Parsons tribute band, Burning Rain.
Barbie Army’s website, which went live in early December 2021, features a charming, sentimental band story by Jean, illustrated by her daughter Genevieve Lotus. It recounts two days in summer 1987 that at first felt like Barbie Army’s first shot at real success. At the time, they were doing pretty modest business: “We made our own tapes and advertised them in Maximum Rock and Roll,” Jean writes. “We sold about three tapes a month for $3 each via the U.S. mail.”
But it looked like that was about to change. Barbie Army were scheduled to play an all-ages overnight punk cruise with Chicago punk bands No Empathy and Rights of the Accused. At ten the next morning, they were booked at Navy Pier for an outdoor event called “Halfway to Saint Patrick’s Day.”
“I was 22 years old, and how could Barbie Army not be on the hinge of Chicago punk rock greatness?” Jean writes. “How many other bands in this city were going to play two gigs within 24-hours this weekend? Nobody.”
Needless to say, those gigs did not launch their career.
“But then, on the boat, everyone was throwing up, and for the Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day gig, nobody came to it,” Jean laments. “People actually rented out Navy Pier and nobody came.”
To add insult to injury, at Navy Pier the girls got kicked off the stage after a sound person assumed “Stained but Clean” was a song about abortion. The engineer turned off the microphones while they were playing. “One girl’s craft is another girl’s stain,” they sing. “Wash away, baby, wash away / It’s soaked into the fabric, can you let me explain.”
“There were information wars. We were in an all-girl band. It was this assumption that if you’re an all-female band, you’re a pro-abortion band,” Mary says. “It’s like being called a communist because you’re teaching English to the poor.”
The band claim the song is about their towels: “We’d have guests over, and when they would take a shower, they would ask for a towel,” Mary explains. “And we would say, ‘It’s stained but clean’—it’s been washed, but it has a stain.”
In 1989 and 1990, Barbie Army played Chicago blues bars, including the New Checkerboard Lounge and the Cuddle Inn on the south side and the Sexy Kitten Lounge on the west side. They advertised their original music as a “Freak Show.”
“It was very surreal,” Jean says. “We never played blues songs. We only played our originals. The guy who was booking us was this freaky fellow who made T-shirts for blues musicians. We tried to start an all-ages ‘scene’ at the fabulous Cuddle Inn (54th and Ashland), and it didn’t really work out.”
“We were invading a space we had no business in,” Tina says. “I remember getting heckled, and I was like, ‘We deserve it.’”
“I just remember the emcee would continuously forget our name,” says Liz Tate, who played bass for the band in 1990. “He would just say, ‘Let’s hear it for the queens!’”
“We played some of the cool bars that were chitlin’-circuit throwbacks to the 50s,” Jean says. “They sold hard-boiled eggs and pig-ear sandwiches, and they gave you a beer with a straw. That was a great weird era, and we got to see it up close.”
During this period, Barbie Army endured a lot of internal turmoil—beginning in 1989, their lineup changes reached an almost comical pace. Jean and Tina remained constant, but guitarists and bassists came and went. “They went through a long list of bass players,” Ron recalls. “It seemed like they had a new one every week.”
When Starbuck left, Mary took over on bass, and the group became a trio. Eventually Mary moved to Boston, after which Barbie Army’s bassists included the aforementioned Liz Tate, Lyn Pusztai, Christine “Sixteen” Garcia, Joan Baby, Tanya Mushinsky, and Glynis Johnson from Friends of Betty (Smashing Pumpkins wrote a song called “Glynis” about her death, after she passed away from AIDS complications in 1992).
“I remember a 16-year-old Hispanic girl that played a show with them at China Club,” Ron says. “She was backstage doing her homework before the show.” That bassist was Christine Garcia, but the band called her “Christine Sixteen.”
“She used to sneak out the window to come play shows, and we would drive her back home to 99th and Exchange in our Dodge Caravan,” Jean says.
In an attempt to solve the bassist problem, Jean and Tina decided to go with a known quantity instead of a stranger with chops. “We had gone through so many bass players that Tina and I were like, ‘Let’s just get a friend and teach them how to play bass,’” Jean says. The two of them talked Lyn Pusztai into it—she had little experience, but she had great stage presence and a cool headless bass.
Guitarists included Debbie Jurek, Alaina Lemon, and Ellen Philips (of early-90s Chicago outfit Rustbucket), who was friends and roommates with Liz Tate at Northwestern and joined Barbie Army with her.
Despite all these changes, the band continued to gig a lot. “When Liz and I joined, we played all the time,” Ellen says. “We played so many shows in just a few months.”
“Maybe six shows a month,” Liz adds. “Sometimes more than one a week.”
“And when we weren’t playing shows,” Tina says, “we were putting up flyers all over the place for a couple of hours a night.”
Once the band even lost a member in the middle of a concert. “I switched from guitar to bass when Liz quit Barbie Army in between sets at a show at Club Dreamerz in Chicago,” Ellen recalls. “I played bass for the second set.”
Barbie Army’s self-titled seven-inch, with an original and a cover on each side, came out while their personnel were constantly shifting. The A side features songs recorded by Jean, Tina, Liz, and Ellen; on the B side, the lineup is Jean, Tina, and Glynis. The A side opens with the original “Girls of Slender Means,” inspired by the title of a Muriel Spark novella. “We are the girls of slender means,” they sing. “We do not share our lipstick or our men / We serve all day in the canteen / Our purse is empty, but our hips are thin.”
All the lineup changes, compounded by personal factors, contributed to Barbie Army’s demise. They finally disbanded in 1991.
For the reunion show in May, six former members of Barbie Army plan to convene at Phyllis’ Musical Inn—and those are just the ones who’ve confirmed so far. Ellen is flying in from Los Angeles, and Starbuck still lives in Chicago. Alaina is coming from Ann Arbor, and Tina from Madison. Jean and Mary will both be there, of course—they’re back in Fort Collins, Colorado, where they’ve been playing together again (a few years ago, Mary recorded a song Jean cowrote called “Rats on the CTA”). My band Beastii will open.
The show is intended as a one-off, but reunions like this have a tendency to get out of hand. If the musicians have a great time—or if the reissue takes off—then it’s anyone’s guess what else might happen.
The people who knew Barbie Army back in the day remember the group as entertaining onstage and off. Chicago actress Karen Vaccaro, who’d already won two of her three Jeff Awards by the time the band formed, considered them friends. For a while she pulled off a shtick as their “manager,” riding around in their white band van to gigs.
“I would sit in the front seat, as the band manager—or this persona of the band manager—who always made sure the girls had a clean change of underwear,” Karen says. “And at the gigs, I would negotiate with the venues. I’d ask, ‘Will you be providing Diet Cokes for all the girls?’ I was like this schoolmarm.” At their shows, Karen remembers, she would dance wildly.
“They were a fun band to see and play shows with,” Ron says. “We didn’t care about making money or ‘making it’ back then. We were just in love with playing shows with our friends and having fun. We played in any weird club or dive bar that would have us, and we loved it!”
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